KC Zoo: Inclusive Playground

Zoo inclusive playground in the world

Visitors projected every year

FIRST Zoo Inclusive Playground – Variety KC Exploration Play

Project Start Date:

March 18, 2018

Grand Opening:

May 4, 2018


The Kansas City Zoo 6800 Zoo Dr, Kansas City, MO 64132

The Need

Children with special needs, and all children, benefit tremendously from inclusive play. Participation and availability of activities can be challenging due to:

  • Sensory and social skill issues that can make public experiences difficult
  • Lack of truly inclusive opportunities at major attractions such as a zoo or park
  • Equipment and venues that are ADA compliant, but still pose hurdles to some individuals

As “inclusion” becomes more than a buzzword, organizations are rethinking the design and build of public projects. One such project is the partnership between Variety Kansas City (“Variety KC”), an organization that advocates for the inclusiveness of children with disabilities within the Kansas City community and Friends of the Zoo, Inc. (“FOTZ”), the operator of the Kansas City Zoo (“Zoo”). The Zoo has a significant interest in ensuring that all guests of the Zoo, including children with disabilities, have a positive experience while visiting the Zoo.

The Kansas City Zoo plays such an important role in connecting children to the natural world. It’s a childhood rite of passage and a memory-maker. Still, not every child has been able to fully experience a zoo and facilities all over the nation are beginning to implement programs of inclusion to remedy that.

Accessible is not necessarily inclusive according to Deborah Wiebrecht, the Executive Director of Variety KC. No other Zoo in the nation has launched such an inclusive effort.

This is the first all inclusive play exhibit at any Zoo nationwide. Kansas City Zoo will be a leader and set an example for other Zoo’s to follow by offering inclusion for all kids. No other zoo has committed to the level of inclusiveness as our zoo in Kansas City. This partnership ensures that the zoo’s new Exhibit in Africa a Natural Play area is fully inclusive, allowing all children to participate together. Other elements of inclusion has also been made available through sensory equipment opportunities.


What it Includes

From the play surface, throughout each feature of the natural play area, every consideration has been made for absolute inclusiveness. The partnership started in 2017, as FOTZ was planning for a new Nature Play area at the Zoo, Variety KC was consulted in order to ensure the area’s features were inclusive to children with disabilities.

  • A zip line with companion harnesses so a parent or partner can accompany a child with special needs.  
  • An “elephant swing” that is accessible for children with special needs, but accommodates multiple children – encouraging engagement among all kids on the swing.
  • Special solid surfacing will allow children in power wheelchairs or using gait walkers to access all areas of the exhibit. (Although ADA accepted, a single piece of mulch from a mulched playground surface can damaging the mechanics of a $10,000 power wheelchair.)
  • Low sensory area for calming children and for breast-feeding mothers seeking privacy.
  • Special sensory kits with weighted blankets and noise canceling headphones are available for checkout.

Wiebrecht explains that the most important part of this effort is the social aspect of the play area. “Play time is the key time for children to learn to interact, to resolve conflict, and realize we’re all different. Because the majority of playgrounds and play areas are not inclusive, some children don’t often meet their peers with special needs. Inclusive opportunities like the zoo’s will allow peers to meet and play together, overcoming obstacles and differences together. This is how a caring community is created, this is how to raise open-minded, empathetic, and cooperative adults.”

The inclusiveness extends beyond children. This totally accessible and inclusive destination is also a benefit to grandparents who may be mobility challenged, or for a parent who may be a disabled veteran. “One out of four families has a member with a disability. Can you imagine excluding 25% of your friends from joining you?” asks Wiebrecht.

“What FOTZ is doing will improve lives here in Kansas City and offer enjoyment to the thousands of families who visit our area and zoo each year. Variety KC is proud to be a part of this exciting project.”


Additional Details

Everyone benefits from regular physical activity, especially children with special needs. Most disabilities can be accommodated with adaptive equipment or technique adjustments – the benefits are many:

  • Improvement in muscle strength, coordination, and flexibility.
  • Improved exercise endurance, cardiovascular efficiency
  • Better balance, motor skills and body awareness
  • Improved behavior, academics, focus, self-confidence
  • Experiences a sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction
  • Can increase appetite, improve quality of sleep
  • Decrease in secondary health complications like obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol and diabetes
  • Provides outlet for physical energy, helps them cope with anxiety, stress and depression
  • Offers opportunities to engage with “typical” friends and family members

Variety KC is a local chapter of International Variety and all money raised in our area stays here. Based on feedback from other Variety chapters, Kansas City is rapidly becoming a leader in inclusive communities. In the past three years, Variety KC has been involved in building two inclusive ball fields, four inclusive playgrounds, launched the first inclusive ice hockey and ice skating programs, and consulted on a number of inclusion focused projects.

Find Out How to Get Involved

Volunteer for Variety KC, become a sponsor, champion a fundraiser with our support, or make a donation.